Emergency workers in southwest Ethiopia scrambled yesterday to rescue thousands marooned by the latest in a series of deadly flash floods across the nation feared to have killed nearly 900 people.
With 876 people in southern, eastern and northern Ethiopia already reported dead or missing from flooding in the past two weeks, officials warned the toll was likely to climb higher with poor weather hampering relief operations.
Authorities appealed for international aid as search and rescue teams fought to help residents of 14 villages submerged by raging waters from the Omo River.
At least 364 people were drowned and up to 20,000 stranded in the region when the river and several tributaries swelled by heavy seasonal rains in the Ethiopian highlands burst their banks on Sunday.
Unable to reach affected areas by air, rescue workers, including swimmers and divers, were using boats in frantic attempts to reach those marooned amid fears that water-borne diseases like cholera may soon pose additional threats.
"The search and rescue teams have spent the night on the waters looking for survivors and bodies," said Tegaye Mununhe, chief police inspector for the Southern Omo region. "The search will continue day and night."
"We are now dispatching more boats with food, medicine, tents and health workers to evaluate the situation in places we have managed to reach," he told reporters by telephone, about 780km southwest of Addis Ababa.
"At the same time, we are dispatching another team to will help transport survivors we have already found to a higher ground," Tegaye said.
Overwhelmed by the crisis, regional authorities desperately sought outside help as UN agencies and private aid organizations pledged to assist.
"We are trying to do everything we can but the magnitude of the disaster is not something we can tackle by ourselves," Governor Shiferaw Shegute said late on Wednesday.
His appeal came after officials reported the number of deaths from the Omo River floods had nearly doubled from the previous toll of 194 with the recovery of 170 more bodies and said they expected a sharp rise in that figure.
"We are expecting the death toll to increase and we are preparing ourselves for more bodies, maybe even hundreds more," regional police spokesman Daniel Gezhegn said.
The flooding in the south came after rivers burst their banks in the east, where 256 people were killed last week and some 250 are still missing.